The work of two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson is a gift that has been overlooked by too many people for too long for a variety of reasons. Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” premiered on Netflix Dec. 18, 2020. For a number of American viewers, this was the first they had heard of the masterpiece. The play was written in 1982 as the first of the playwright’s 10-play cycle that was designed to capture the black American experience in the 20th century. ‘Black Bottom’ is the only play in the collection set outside of Wilson’s native Pittsburgh.
It seems odd that most people, black and white, are just now seeing the play in any form 20 years into the 21st century. The movie version is not a biopic, but it is a compelling snapshot of realities facing black musicians and black people in the 1920s.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: A movie full of harsh truths
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” stars Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. Both turn in stellar performances as Ma Rainey and trumpet player, Levee Green. Green is reportedly fictional, as is the piano player he (spoiler) fatally stabs. The play is set in Chicago, and a few scenarios play out before audiences are treated to the insular world of working blues musicians in the 1920s. The basic set up is that the musicians have arrived to record an album with Ma Rainey, a woman known as “Mother of the Blues” and “Empress of the Blues.” The band members, well, most of them, arrive on time. Young, brash trumpeter, Levee, is distracted by pretty women and new shoes. The new shoes will play a pivotal role in the work’s outcome.
Audience’s learn that there are two versions of a song Ma performs: there is the singer’s version, and another modified by Levee and liked by the band’s white producers, who also seem to function as record executives. Whether the band will play Levee’s version or Ma’s is a source of perpetual tension between Levee and his bandmates.
Ma is late to arrive. She is shown leaving an upscale Chicago hotel on the arm of her female lover. As other patrons stare, Ma also puts her arm around the young man with them. Unbeknownst to the onlookers, the young man is the singer’s nephew. The takeaway is Ma’s refusal to look away from the judgmental and hateful looks given to her. This is a different portrayal of black experiences, and can be juxtaposed with iconic works like “The Color Purple.”
What will likely get audiences’ attention the most, and certainly where Wilson’s considerable artistry shines brightest, is in the banter and real talk shared between the musicians. The group, in addition to Levee on trumpet, consists of Cutler on trombone, Toledo on piano, and Slow Drag on bass. The other men are considerably older than Levee, and they mock his intonation about his “32 years” as well as his dance moves in the new shoes. The purchase of the shoes has caused him to be late, but not as late as Ma, and so the men have time to talk about their lives and experiences.
The dialogue among the men gives audiences insight into the spiritual, social, and romantic lives of the men. Too often, black Americans are portrayed as monolithically spiritual, but the harsh realities of life in the Jim Crow South (Levee is from Mississippi) shook the faith of people like Levee, who found it difficult to believe after eight white men assaulted his mother. His father killed four of them before he was lynched and burned. Young Levee was only eight years old. While the musician is fictional, his experiences, unfortunately are not. His telling of the story moves the older men, and audiences can see that there is something deep lurking beneath the playful, show-off surface of Levee Green. Just how deep and dark that something is will be seen toward the end. The outcome also speaks volumes about the mental health toll racial trauma inflicts on its targets. Levee clearly needs help. But in 1927, what was wrong with him had likely not been named yet. Almost one hundred years later, the idea of treating race-based trauma is still in its infancy.
As for Ma, she does not back down from anyone. Not the white men who run the studio, and certainly not from the musicians she employs. Even while he seems to be glad to have a job (at least so that he can buy new shoes), Levee does not back down, either. He butts heads with Ma at every opportunity. She accuses him of “playing too many notes.” Behind her back, Levee calls her music “jug band music.” He has his sights on something flashier that people can dance to. In a way, he is right. Rainey’s music will fall out of fashion. Her legacy will be usurped by that of Bessie Smith, with whom she shared a mentor/mentee relationship. However, because of his choices, and because of racism, Levee never benefits from the songs he wrote for the white record executive. He is told “it’s just now what we’re looking for.” He is given five dollars for each song. At the end, a soul-less sounding white jazz band is recording one of Levee’s song. The reckoning is as bitter as the band’s performance is dry. Meanwhile, audiences can only imagine Levee is in jail for the action he took against one of his bandmates who accidentally scuffed Levee’s new shoes.
Wilson’s portrayal of black American life and its nuances found an esoteric vehicle in Ma Rainey and her musicians. The brutality and fatalism that black Americans have lived with for generations is given center stage, even in the context of recording one of the blues’ most iconic songs.